It’s Time We Talk About the Mental Load—and How To Lighten This Invisible Burden In Your Life

Buh-bye, burnout.

By Brandy Joy Smith

As women across all seasons of life, suffice it to say that our plates are full. Pre-kids, I often had a running list of to-dos as it pertained to my house, my health, and my career. With two kids now, I seem to have those same lists plus one for each member of my family. From household chores to errands, there are few days when I don’t find myself physically and mentally exhausted by the evening. Enter: the mental load.

As we get older and household pressures begin to mount, we may find ourselves asking an age-old question: how much more can I take? When do I reach my breaking point? How do I protect myself from burnout and even resentment toward others? 

If you’ve ever felt this way, I can assure you; you are not alone. That internal bandwidth that comes with running a household is called the mental load. 

Featured image of Simone Boyce by Teal Thomsen.

Marie Kouadio Amouzame and daughter
Image by Belathée Photography

What is the mental load?

The mental load refers to the cognitive effort involved in managing your work, relationships, family, and household. It’s the laundry list of details you manage throughout the day. It has to do with your responsibilities, formal or not, as well as the decisions you have to make.

Did I get a birthday gift for Sara? Did I schedule the Christmas card photos? Did I pick out the outfits? Did I make the dentist appointment? Did I pack everyone’s luggage? Do we have enough diapers? Does my husband know what time the kids need to be picked up? The list can go on and on. 

Research suggests that women carry a heavier mental load in the household. According to Healthline, a 2019 study of 35 heterosexual couples found that the women in the relationships tend to take on more of the cognitive labor, particularly when it came to anticipating the needs of others and monitoring progress.

Additionally, when 400 married women were asked about their mental load, 88 percent reported that they were the ones who primarily managed routines at home and 76 percent said they were mostly responsible for maintaining regular household standards and order.

Much like a physical burden, the weight of the mental load can be heavy and detrimental to one’s health. 

Jenna Kutcher with baby_mental load
Image by Drew Kutcher

My Personal Mental Load 

Like so many of you, my mental load reached its limit when I became a mother. This isn’t to say I wasn’t ready to become a parent. I knew there would be sleepless nights and long days, teething phases, and seemingly endless messes to clean. What surprised me was the running list of tasks and the unseen domestic labor.

I didn’t feel appreciated and all the work I was doing seemed like it wasn’t valued. Because let’s face it: society doesn’t value it.

It’s simply expected! Women can do it all, right? Newsflash: we can’t. Even if I could, I don’t want to. 

Samantha Wennerstrom and daughter
Image by Sara Prince

Sharing Your Mental Load With Your Partner

I’m going to tell you a secret. Are you ready? We’ve all been sold a lie: the lie that men aren’t capable of carrying some of the household burdens. I recently did a poll on my Instagram asking women if they sometimes feel that it would be easier to just do something themselves instead of asking for help. I was met with a resounding yes.

We may think things like “my husband probably doesn’t even know where the kids’ school is” or “he probably doesn’t know what time to pick them up,” but that’s just not fair. If they don’t know these things, it’s time that they do so they can take on some of the responsibilities as well. 

Megan Roup and baby
Image by Michelle Nash

The Moment I Knew I Need To Address the Responsibility Imbalance

Story time. One day, my husband Tyler took the kids to the dentist. After the appointment, they asked him if he would like to schedule the next appointment. Instead of doing it, he said “no, my wife will call you.” I lost it when he told me. Why put that on me? Why add that to my list when you were just there? It was then that I knew I needed to make a change before it set me over the edge. 

Since having conversations about sharing the mental load, I’ve seen my husband take on more tasks. Surprise! He does them just as well, if not better than I can. He also now cooks all our meals and does all the grocery shopping, so I never have to think about the meals. It’s no longer a part of my mental load. 

Ariel Kaye cooking with daughter_mental load
Image by Teal Thomsen

How To Share the Mental Load With Your Partner

When it comes to sharing the mental load with your partner, every household is unique. So, I decided to tap a few experts, including Mariel Benjamin, LCSW & Director of Groups at Cooper. Mariel is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 15 years of experience at Mount Sinai Medical Center working with families and children. She is the Director of Groups at Cooper, and mom to two young kids. She had amazing insights to share on how to lighten your mental load with your children, as well. 

“One of my favorite ways to do this is figuring out how to promote autonomy while removing some items from my list. Ask your children to take over packing their lunches, remembering to wash their soccer uniform in time for practice, or keeping track of their homework.

It stretches them, gives them important roles in the household, and improves their own executive function skills. Above all, remember that asking for help and dividing responsibility is never a bad choice, as long as we allow ourselves to believe that we are entitled to it.”

Camille Styles and daughter Phoebe setting the table_mental load
Image by Kristen Kilpatrick

How to Lighten Your Mental Load

Asking for help with the mental load is just one step in the direction of a happier life. Another is finding ways to make what’s on your plate less heavy. I know what you’re thinking: “How is this possible when there seem to be no relaxing days?” These are my tips.

Give yourself permission 

Not every day needs to be more productive than the next. Give yourself permission to be lazy, lie down, ask for help, be silly, or do whatever you need to do to wind down.

Many times, we are our own captors in the never-ending spiral of stress and shame.

Turn off that voice in your head that says you aren’t doing enough. Replace it with a louder one that says it’s okay to not be perfect. 

Assess your values 

Think of an experience that was so positive, fulfilling, and deeply meaningful that you can almost feel what it was like to be in that moment. It could be from any point in your life. Write down what made that experience so meaningful to you. Repeat this process a few times using different experiences and calm yourself down before continuing on with your day.

Take a self-compassion break 

Stop being so hard on yourself! The world will not fall apart if we miss one thing on our list. Take a moment to mindfully reflect on all that you have done instead of all that you haven’t, and have compassion for yourself. Feel for your own well-being as you would for a loved one. 

Have the talk

Sit your partner down and chat about what a fair division of labor looks like in your home. Even if you’re a stay-at-home caregiver, you can still divide some of this labor up. If you’re like Tyler and me, you might have more of a 35/65 split. The important thing is to sit down in a calm environment and empower your partner to take on tasks that meet both of your standards for care. 

Alex Taylor and family_mental load
Image by Teal Thomsen

More Mental Load Resources

If you’re feeling at the end of your rope, resentful, overwhelmed, or unsure how to communicate these feelings to your spouse, I recommend checking out some of these accounts.

They have helped me find balance and my voice when it came to asking for help with my mental load. I hope they can do the same for you! 

Brandy Joy Smith and family
Image by Zachary Gray

A Few Final Thoughts

I hope we can all recognize that it’s not unreasonable to ask for help and for equal rest in the household. Laura Danger of ThatDarnChat said it best when I asked for her advice.

“Working outside of the house and domestic engineering at home are both time and energy consuming. Everyone deserves to hold some of the daily grind tasks, as well as some of the more mentally heavy tasks like state planning or managing holidays! Be clear and explicit, and make the time to discuss who is responsible. Don’t default. Discuss!”

Stay tuned! I’ll be following up with how I took a deep dive with Tyler on the Fairplay method, how we split our mental load and domestic labor, and how we value it. In the meantime: you’ve got this!